Why Context Matters

So I guess I agree with Jon Chait that the fact that the US isn’t using its influence over the Saudi or Bahraini governments to halt the killing of non-violent protestors there isn’t a reason to decline to intervene in Libya. Similarly, the fact that we’re not using our influence over the Yemeni government isn’t a reason not to intervene in Libya. Nor is the fact that we’re declining to deploy our military to restrain civil conflicts in Congo or Chad or Cote D’Ivoire exactly a reason not to intervene in Libya. And by the same token, the fact that the invasion of Iraq turned into a costly and bloody fiasco doesn’t show that intervening in Libya is futile. Nor does the mere fact that American public policy is utterly indifferent to the interests and human rights of Palestinian Arabs mean an intervention in Libya is unworkable. Nor does the fact that our most recent military incursion into Africa led to the total destabilization of Somalia have any particular bearing on the merits of no-fly zone in Libya.

But there’s a question of context here. Chait says: “Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.”

And of course that’s true too. But all this context is relevant as an indictment of the elite leadership class of the United States of America. If everyone cares as much about the political rights of Arabs as Libya interventionists say, then what on earth are they doing in Bahrain and Yemen and Palestine? If everyone cares as much about the loss of innocent African life as Libya interventionists say, then what on earth are they doing ponying up so little in foreign aid and doing so little to dismantle ruinous cotton subsidies? These aren’t really points about Libya. And why should they be? What do I know about Libya? What does Chait know about Libya? These are points about the United States of America and the various elites who run the country and shape the discourse. Exactly the kinds of subjects that frequent participants in American political debates know and care about. I see no particular reason to think that Libya will have any impact on malaria funding, but I do think the level of malaria funding is impacted over the long term by the existence of a substantial number of people (of which Chait is one) who seem to advocate for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans.

So I hope this Libya policy works out. I have my doubts, but who knows. The world is full of surprises. I do know, however, that providing more bed nets to prevent malaria would be cheap and logistically simple compared to deposing Gaddafi and that the easiest step America could take to deal a blow to Arab autocracy would be to stop selling weapons to Arab autocrats that they turn around and fire on their people.